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December 8, 2010

Checking the Numbers

A Snake, a Padre, and a Dodger Walk into a Bar...

by Eric Seidman

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At the beginning of the year, a Blockbuster Video near my house was closing down and held a liquidation sale for about a week or two. Movies, video games, posters, and even the stands that hold the movies were up for grabs, and it became common to see customers exit the store with 10 or more items in their bag. After a bit of skepticism with regards to the types of movies that would be on sale, I ventured over for the first of my three visits. My skepticism was well-founded, as the movies that remained were not award-worthy by any stretch. Still, they were so inexpensive that I couldn’t help but walk away with a small stash. Traitor for $1? Sure, why not?

The next day I returned and the options had gotten substantially worse. There were some diamonds in the rough, like Storm of the Century and Idiocracy, but the pickings were slim compared to the previous trip. By the time I showed up on that third day, the store was almost empty and all that remained were horror movies from the various After Dark Horrorfests. I snagged a few, to give me around 20 movies for $45, but did not realistically expect to be blown away by any of them. I wasn’t going to plan a romantic evening and pop in Wet Hot American Summer, but on a random Tuesday night when I lay down in bed, maybe it’d give me a few laughs and have qualitative value well beyond the $0.75 price tag (it did!).

If you could not tell where this is heading, my video store is very similar to the hypothetical bargain bin that GMs will reach into in an attempt to improve their club at a very team-friendly price. Transactions of this ilk always tend to pique my interest more than, say, the ongoing and anticlimactic Derek Jeter saga, or the strange signing of Jayson Werth. With the Winter Meetings upon us, a bevy of players have been dealt or offered deals, and while the aforementioned players and their pal Cliff Lee tend to hog the headlines, several minor deals have the potential to provide plenty of impact. Some of these players may end up costing a dollar and being worth a 7/10 rating on IMDB, to keep the metaphor going, while others will be shut off a third of the way through.

Three of the less publicized moves—Zach Duke to the Diamondbacks, Aaron Harang to the Padres, and Jon Garland to the Dodgers—are particularly interesting as proxies for examining risk on the free-agent market as well as transactional archetypes. Most of this falls in line with the idea of the investment value, which I described a few weeks ago. The concept is important to understand when evaluating free-agent deals because no matter what calculator is used to translate projected wins into projected value in monetary form, if the inputs leading to that initial projection are inaccurate, the whole process is flawed. To recap, the investment value is used in business valuations as a way to accurately reflect true worth from the standpoint of how the business would be best utilized. For example, a computer company with Bill Gates at the helm is worth more than one with Antonio Gates in the executive office.

In baseball terms, certain players may have more value to certain teams based on the roles they would fill. Zach Duke doesn’t boast much value from an overall standpoint, but if used strictly against lefty hitters, he could do some damage for a team. How does this all fit the three pitching amigos listed above? Well, they’re in different stages of their careers and are expected to provide different levels of value. Garland is the more known entity, even though his performance is not superlative. Harang has the highest ceiling of the trio, but he has been a shell of himself lately. And Duke was never all that fantastic to begin with, but in a specific role he could make Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers look like a genius. Then again, if I hear how great he is at building pitching staffs and bullpens one more time, my head might explode.

Garland is who he is. He is a control and command pitcher who relies on grounders. He doesn’t strike many batters out, and while his walk rates have usually been low, they have not been impressive either. He will log about 200 innings, give up a good amount of hits but not a ton of dingers, and settle somewhere in the 4.30-4.60 ERA range. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2002, he has produced exactly 30 WARP in nine seasons. That has value, especially when a team can jot those numbers down with an increased level of certainty that they will be reached. Garland will only be 31 years old in 2011, and it is hard to imagine we won’t see another 200 IP, 4.40 ERA season from the lanky righty. He is about as non-risky as a starting pitcher can be, even though a team probably will not do too well if he is the ace.

He will not be called on to lead the Dodgers’ rotation next year, but rather slot himself somewhere in the middle behind Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Being able to count on 200 innings with league-average production in that spot is very valuable, and while $5 million for next year is not necessarily a bargain relative to the contract Vicente Padilla appears to be primed to sign with the Dodgers, what Garland brings to the table is usually worth more than most people think. Unfortunately for him, teams are unlikely to sign him to a long-term deal, but anyone looking to shore up the back end of a starting rotation would be wise to bring him aboard. Of the three pitchers in question here, he is the safest bet to provide a good amount value without much risk.

The riskiest of the three has to be Harang, who went from back-of-the-rotation nobody in Oakland to All-Star ace in Cincinnati, all the way to an afterthought following a stretch of poor pitching and health issues. From 2005-07, few senior circuit pitchers were better and more durable than Harang. Take a gander at these numbers:

Year

IP

K%

UBB%

ERA

SIERA

WARP

2005

211.2

18.3

5.4

3.83

3.93

3.9

2006

233.1

21.8

5.1

3.76

3.44

4.2

2007

234.2

23.0

5.2

3.73

3.27

5.1

Clearly, everything pointed towards Harang continuing to dominate. Every number trended in the right direction or leveled off at a positive point. I’ll have a Seidnotes on this coming up, but Harang’s raw unintentional walk numbers are just strange: 2004-48, 2005-48, 2006-48, 2007-49, and 2008-45, before 37 in 2009 and 38 in 2010. In 2008, Harang started off well, but was called on to pitch four innings of relief in a May 25th game against the Padres, after starting two days earlier, and was never the same since. Here are his numbers since that fateful day:

Year

IP

K%

UBB%

ERA

2008-post relief

105.2

17.2

6.6

5.88

2009

162.1

20.2

5.3

4.21

2010

111.2

16.3

7.5

5.32

The 2009 season showed he could still pitch well, and the Padres, who signed Harang to a $3.5 million deal with an option for the 2012 season—assuming the world doesn’t end like it almost did in one of the movies I picked up in the liquidation—are holding out hope that a fresh start and a change of scenery can get those numbers back in form. Plus, pitching in Petco even made Garland look like an ace for a bit, so imagine what could happen if Harang truly does rebound. At a relatively low price, Harang is a very valuable signing, but if he is as finished as he looked at times last season, which is certainly a possibility given the wear and tear on that right arm, then the Padres will wish they had a mulligan, even if the cost is very low. If Garland is a low-risk, medium-reward pitcher, then Harang is medium-risk, high-reward pitcher.

The last pitcher, Zach Duke, is medium-risk, medium-reward as a starter. In fact, as a starter, one could argue that he is a low-reward pitcher whose risk outweighs what he brings to the table. But as Chase Gharrity covered recently, Duke has been quite adept at retiring same-handed batters throughout his career. In 768 PA against lefty batters, Duke has a 3.92 SIERA and generates a higher percentage of grounders than he does against righties. He also has a 2.8 K/BB against lefties (1.7 against righties) and a .285/.341/.427 slash line (.309/.354/.469 against righties). The numbers against lefties are not exactly akin to those of Boone Logan or J.C. Romero this past season, who ranked first and second in my LOOGY Awards for the 2010 campaign, but Duke clearly provides more utility against his batting brethren.

At $4.25 million for 2011, however, Duke would be rather pricey for a one-batter-per-appearance pitcher, especially considering he has never been tried in the role. Realistically, the Diamondbacks will try his hand in the starting rotation and only opt for his LOOGY use if he flounders. He isn’t very costly as a starter, but there isn’t any real certainty of what to expect. He could log 200-plus innings of 2.5 WARP pitching or 150 innings of performance that subtracts from the team. Adding an option to the contract in case the 28-year-old lefty figures things out was a nice touch, but pitchers with his and Garland’s skill set usually need to have precision control on their resume, and Duke has always seemed to be lacking in that department.

In the end, all three of these now-NL West pitchers have a chance to make an impact at a relatively low cost, but the value they provide is going to be relative to their role. Garland isn’t an ace, but he is better than a fifth-starter archetype, so $5 million is very reasonable for 200 innings of league-average production. Harang is a veritable wild card, who could easily be worth four or five times his salary for the 2011 season, or prove to be worth less while missing time. Duke could prove to be somewhat of a steal as a starter, but as a LOOGY he would have to be among the best to merit the money. He finds himself in the Bermuda Triangle of value, where his salary as a starter is less reasonable than the low cost might indicate, while that same salary would make him amongst the priciest for the LOOGY role. It will be interesting to revisit the status of all three throughout the season, but these types of moves definitely invite plenty of discussion as to the importance of roles and certainty in developing projections of players and using that usually imprecise information to fuel evaluations of transactions. 

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Jon Garland,  Movies,  Loogy,  Reward

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